The United States government never issued orders to exterminate any American Indian nation, by any means of warfare. It is true, however, that individual military generals and field officers–in the heat of battle or the immediate emotional reactions thereupon–did make statements about total genocide of the Indians, and that early on. In certain cases, at certain times, particularly in the latter days on the wild plains, actions of the US military certainly seem to indicate at least a local, incidental intent of extermination.
Not so long ago, Communist-trained Leftist Indian activists counted it a great revelation to announce the world that the U. S. government attempted to use germ warfare to exterminate (or at least greatly reduce) the population of natives in the land. The disease of small pox had historically already demonstrated its natural effectiveness to minimize if not eliminate native populations of the “new world.” Unfortunately for whites, it eliminated many of them as well.
But part of the problem here are the estimates of American Indian populations before the European invasions. The European takeover was not sudden, nor unified. This cultural “clash” evolved over several hundred years. Russell Thorton suggests that the American Indian population of the United States was somewhat over 5 million when Columbus arrived on the South American islands. See, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. (This is based on Henry Dobyn’s method.) The idea of the numerical significance of Indian deaths from small pox (or anything else) is based directly on the extimation of the existing numbers before the deaths. There is no way around this fact. If the numbers are essentially unclear (which they are), the understanding of death is inevitably affected. Cause, intent, and even actuality are shaped by the numbers.
In her interview for BadEagle.com, Ann Coulter uses the argument that it would be impossible for the U.S. government to try to use small pox infected blankets as germ warfare against Indians, since no knowledge of such contagion was available until after Louis Pasteur’s famous experiements in the latter 19th century. Michael Medved, recently noted by BadEagle.com for quoting a BadEagle article, also discounts the use of small pox as intentional germ warfare against Indians. He and many others see it as simply a case of European diseases to which the American Indian had no immunity or genetic resistance. Part of the great cultural car wreck.
However, there are a couple of matters here that need to be brought into the discussion. Firstly, Louis Pasteur was not the scientist who made any special revelation about small pox. That was Edward Jenner, in 1796. Jenner developed the practice of vaccination. This would then entail an understanding at least of immunity, if not some element of contagion. The precise relation of immunity to contagion is the question. Pasteur’s contribution had to do with immunity, not the precise understanding of contagion. That small pox was caused by a germ was already understood. Pasteur offered advancement in the matter of vaccines. (And there’s even an issue of whether the work of Paul Ehrlich was not the precursor of Pasteur’s in the matter of chemical antidotes for toxins in the body.)
Secondly, contagion was anciently understood as something that involved physical contact. There was knowledge that some diseases were in fact caused by touch. Leprosy was one of these. The ancient Hebrews had laws dealing with the leper. He was to be isolated, and nothing of his was to be touched. The language of the ancient scriptures (ca. 1300 BC) may sound ritualistic if not superstitious to our ears, but it clearly entailed the concept that the disease was transmitted through touch. See, Leviticus 13: 42-46. This involved even the clothing of diseased individual. Leper colonies developed, where diseased individuls lived together, legally separated from society, for fear of their contagion. We can’t say this is explicitly scientific language, but it is the intuitive behavioral prescription against contagion. (We should say, the inspired instruction.)
The ancient Hittites used infected people to spread disease among the enemy. And also the Hindu. Poisonous dancing girls were sent to assassinate Alexander in the late 4th century, according to Adrienne Mayor’s collection of sordid tales of terror. See, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Bilogical and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (Overlook, 2003). Apparently Sumerian cuneiform tablets of 1770 BC show some understanding of contagion.
But when it comes to spreading small pox by “infected” blankets, science doesn’t support the idea. The specific small pox virus (Poxviridae-viriola) must enter the body fluids to cause infection, usually through the nose or mouth, thus transmission from cotton or wool bedding is highly unlikely and such a scheme of contagion would be very inefficient, of not essentially ineffective. The body fluids of the infected person would have to be freshly present on the material, in liquid form. The bacteria is generally transmitted by person to person, as in mother to infant, husband to wife, etc.
And despite a few comments in individual letters about the idea of spreading a pox on Indians through traded items like blankets, we really don’t have any concrete evidence that such a program was ever carried out, even on a local scale. And yet, the myth is so vibrant that it made its way into a scene in the movie Broken Trail (2006).
Both Coulter and Medved are quite right about the virtual unlikelihood of any such intentional germ warfare against Indians, but, I think their arguments might use a ‘booster’ shot.